Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Content and Form in "Digging"

The form of Seamus Heaney's "Digging" is quite irregular, on the surface. In total number of syllables, lines range from having 4 to 12 syllables. What I find more interesting, however, is the number of LINES in each stanza. Using a specific number of lines in each stanza, Heaney creates an interesting connection between the form and content of the poem. If we look at the following (rudimentary) visual depiction of the lines, we can see that the lines form a hole (note that I have changed the font to Courier because it treats every character as being the same size, which makes the picture much clearer):

8           -
7           -  
6           -
5       -   -
4     - -   - - 
3   - - -   - - -
2 - - - - - - - -
1 - - - - - - - -

Here, I have put a hyphen for each line in the poem. Basically, what I am asserting is that, if we put each stanza in the poem to the RIGHT of the one before it, instead of right below it, they form a hole. The fifth stanza is the one that forms the bottom of the "hole," as it is very short (it is only a thin layer of "dirt," since the diggers have already dug most of the dirt out):

"By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man."

To more clearly understand my meaning, consider the following visual depiction, starting with stanza 4, just before the "hole" begins, and going to stanza 6:

                                                       Than any...
                                                       Once I...
       "The coarse...                       Corked...
       Against the...                       To drink...
       He rooted...                        Nicking...
        To scatter...       "By God...     Over his...
       Loving their..."   Just like..."   For the..."

As we can see, the lines form a hole, and there is perhaps a little bit of left over dirt at the top of the right side (Lines "My..." to "Once I..."), or maybe the lines represent a pen about to fall into the hole, or perhaps a potato ready for planting. Whether this amazing aspect of the form of "Digging" was intentional or not remains to be seen, but I find it fascinating and inspiring.

*NOTE: I hope this looks right on your computer screens. It took a bit of work to get it to come out right, but it is worth it if I can share what I see in the poem.


chuck74 said...


I really like this interpretation. I was not thinking in any way shape or form to look at this schema to develop a hole. I find it very interesting that you were able to find such a distint representation as to why Heaney would develop his form in this way. I would suggest going back and looking at the rhyme scheme again as it to be depicts o ne who is adament about the beauty of rhyme (the pen) and the one who is worried about the survival of his family (the Spade).

Roger Market said...

That's a good point. Once I realized that there was a "hole," I forgot to look at the rhyme scheme, but you are right. There is a sort of dichotomy between the pen and the spade, represented as a function of the rhyme scheme and beauty of the poem itself as well as the "hole" form I suggested.